Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999 [Seanad]: Committee Stage.
The purpose of today's meeting is to consider the Committee Stage of the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999, which was referred to the Select Committee by the Dáil on 17 November 1999. It is proposed to adjourn today's meeting at 6 p.m. but to suspend the meeting at 4.10 p.m. until the conclusion of the Order of Business. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, and his officials. Do you wish to introduce your officials, Minister?
I am accompanied by Mr. Fergal Costello and Mr. Dalton Tattan. They are young sharp civil servants and very capable.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following subsection:
"(2) This Act and the Education Acts, 1878 to 1998, may be cited together as the Education Acts, 1878 to 1999 and shall be construed together as one Act.".
This amendment is non-controversial. It would link the Bill with previous Education Acts, particularly the Education Act, 1998. I am aware that in another place the Minister said that the parliamentary draftsman was of the view that it was not necessary to include this reference but it appears that, in the context of derivation, it would be best to relate the Bill in the way suggested.
I have been advised by the parliamentary draftsman that legally it would not be appropriate to make this amendment to the Bill which will be interpreted in the context of the Education Acts. The areas covered by it are clearly signalled. I do not propose, therefore, to accept the amendment.
What is the nature of the legal advice received by the Minister? Is it that the thrust of the Bill should be separated from previous Acts? I am not clear as to what legal disability there is in including the amendment.
The legal advice is that, unlike previous Acts, the Bill is aimed at a particular aspect of education, that is, school attendance rather than the education system as a whole.
I am not moved to press the amendment but I give notice of an implication arising from the choice facing the person who drafted the Bill. If the Minister were to accept the amendment he would be able to seek security in a guarantee given in a previous Act. If the Minister states, however, that the Bill focuses on a specific purpose he will have to take his stand on the narrow ground of the Bill. This issue will arise when we come to deal with later amendments. There is a clear choice to be made. In defeating other amendments the Minister will not be able to state that the protection sought by the Deputies proposing the amendments is provided in a previous Act. This is a stand alone Bill.
One could do that actually.
Let me clarify the point. There is a distinction between what one might say is a possible interpretation and what is being legislated for. It is an issue of drafting. The Minister has been advised by the parliamentary draftsman that it would be better to view this as a stand alone Bill. I am not stating that it will not be interpreted contextually but it is a cleaner drafting principle to specifically relate legislation. That is the purpose of the amendment. The Minister will have an opportunity before Report Stage to reflect on the matter.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, subsection (2), line 35, after "provisions" to insert "and the Minister shall report to Dáil Éireann within one year of the enactment of this legislation on any outstanding provisions which have not been brought into effect, and thereafter each year while provisions remain outstanding".
Section 1 allows the Minister to bring the various provisions of the Bill into force at different times. I am seeking to ensure he will report to the Dáil within one year of the enactment of the Bill on any outstanding provisions which have not been brought into effect and thereafter each year while provisions remain outstanding. I am anxious to ensure this amendment is made because there is a history of neglect by the Department of its duties under the School Attendance Act, 1926, under which it is obliged to collect information on non-attendance. It has fallen into disuse. Legislative provisions in this area have not been taken seriously.
The Bill envisages action not just by the State but also by schools which will be obliged to bring plans into force, keep registers and report the expulsion of pupils, and put codes of behaviour and appeals systems in place. It would be unsatisfactory therefore in the longer term to bring the Bill into force without some of these important planks being in place from a public policy point of view. It is important that the various provisions of the Bill are brought into force over a reasonable period. That is the idea behind the amendment.
I appreciate the Deputy's point and have no great difficulty with it. I propose to adopt it in principle by drafting a suitable Report Stage amendment based on the procedure provided for in the Education Act under which a report has to be presented at the end of year one and all outstanding provisions will automatically come into force at the end of year two.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 5, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) Before making an order or orders under subsection (2) the Minister shall lay before each House of the Oireachtas an assessment of the resource implications of the purposes or provisions involved for the Board, for schools and any other person or body involved together with an appraisal of options for providing the said resource.”.
The effectiveness of the institutions mentioned in the Bill will depend to a large degree on the provision of resources. The education welfare service only provides a service in four boroughs. It does not provide a service in large swathes of Dublin, particularly the newer developed areas on the west side of the city. The public will want to know what resources will be made available to ensure the provisions of the Bill are implemented inside and outside school. It is not a matter for me in seeking to amend the Bill to specify what resources should be made available and to indicate the extent of coverage but before the Bill is brought into force there should be a proper assessment of the resource implications. I have been seeking information on this from the Minister for the last 12 months and was surprised to discover that in accepting the Bill the Department of Finance had not asked for a statement. That is a new departure for it. Perhaps the Department of Education and Science was of the view that it was information that could not be revealed, which would be a strange approach to adopt. To learn how the education welfare service and strategies in schools will work in practice, it is important that there is a proper assessment of the resource implications at which the Houses of the Oireachtas should look before the various provisions of the Bill are brought into force. That would be a useful development and it would be helpful to know that, unlike its predecessor, the Bill will not become a dead letter from the point of view of public policy.
I do not propose to accept the amendment. The functions to which the Deputy referred are more appropriate to the Executive than the Legislature. Ministers must be allowed a degree of discretion in determining how resources are to be deployed. There are means by which they can be held accountable to the Dáil. When the departmental Estimates were considered recently I dealt in considerable detail with the funding arrangements for the national educational welfare board for the next two or three years. I provided the figures——
The Minister did, having refused to do it by way of parliamentary question.
I have here a reply dated 18 May 1999.
If the Minister looks at the previous parliamentary question he will see that the information was refused.
This is May 1999 which, in fairness, was six months ago.
It says, "However, the total costs are unlikely to exceed £4.5 million over the period to 2001". That was in reply to Deputy Yates.
That was not the reply I received.
There is the parliamentary question route, and there are the Estimates which have to be published from year to year. The Department of Education and Science probably has more subheads than any other Departments when it comes to Estimates. Almost everything is subheaded in the Vote for the Department of Education and Science, unlike other Votes which involve more global figures. It would be quite difficult to hide the scale of the resources allocated.
Part of the difficulty is that, once this legislation is passed, an implementation process will be put in place which will involve consultation with the existing school attendance service, the Department of the Environment of Local Government and my Department. The figures we are providing are additional to existing provision for the area of school attendance. It will involve the establishment of the educational board and the employment of extra education and welfare officers. A steering committee has been established to work through the nuts and bolts of the establishment of the education and welfare board. The work of that group will be published, just as the work of the Steering Group on the National Psychological Service was published, outlining the timescale for establishment and expansion of the service. Is the Deputy saying that every order would have to come before the House? That would be cumbersome and unnecessary.
The document published before Christmas, "The New Deal — A Plan for Educational Opportunity", outlines the figures updated to 2001.
My point falls somewhere between Deputy Bruton's amendment and the Minister's reply. It is slightly different to the degree that I hold the view that a Minister is entitled to bring forward legislation and then to tell the Department of Finance to allocate resources to it. That has been my view of the relationship of the Department of Finance and the line Departments. I would not agree to a point at which something which was considered appropriate in education policy or legislation was impeded by a further layer of sanctions in which one would have to agree that the Department of Finance had the right to assess the resource implication and use it as a blocking mechanism. My brief period as a Minister in Cabinet taught me to resist this in Opposition and I will resist it even more strongly when I am back again in a more serious position. I strongly hold to that view.
This is not to argue against the thrust of Deputy Bruton's amendment. I agree with him that this Bill has massive resource implications, unresolved consultative ones, as do resources in relation to, for example, the role of principals and assistants in the context of the additional obligations that will arise in relation to registers and the liaisons that will be possible. I am very much in favour of that. I have no problem with Deputy Bruton seeking an assessment from the Minister for Education and Science. However, I would be very worried about resource implications being used by another Department, specifically the Department of Finance, quite improperly as is its wont in its continuing abuse of the Ministers and Secretaries Act of the 1920s, to disrupt the right of a line Minister to design legislation, go to Cabinet, get approval and bring it forward. I do not want this amendment to be used obstructively like that. However, if the Minister says he is willing to identify the relevant subhead, it seems that would meet some of the points of the amendment.
I empathise with the views expressed by Deputy Higgins in relation to overall management of Government but that is a wider debate. The point is that the financial envelope is there, in the context of both the national development plan and the Estimates for 2000. It has been agreed with the Department of Finance.
Making a statement of the resource implications of legislation is undoubtedly a task for the Minister, not the Oireachtas. Equally, the Oireachtas will want to know if new obligations are imposed other than on the Minister, for example, on schools. It will want to see that reasonable thought has been put into the implications for schools of managing registers and so on. People will not want a repetition of what happened in the case of the School Attendance Act where the various obligations were ignored for whatever reason, perhaps because they were too onerous, and never came into force. There is a history here that makes having a real assessment interesting.
The Minister spoke of an envelope of £4.5 million, although at different times it has been made up in different ways. At one stage it seems to have been cumulative over three years which would not be £4.5 million a year; it would, at peak, be only about £2.5 million. I am glad to hear that at least we have £4.5 million as an ongoing annual budget. Equally people will want to know whether that is all going into the board and its services or will there be other implications. For example, where it is decided that off school activities are required, will there be budgets to pay for participation in programmes out of school? That could be very important to securing the objectives of this Bill.
We have never at any stage had a debate on what happens when one gets early warning of a child having difficulties, who will intervene and what will be done and it is not spelled out in the Bill. That is why we are in the dark. We are approving provisions that are good in principle, but there are no positive statements of obligation as to what a child is entitled to expect as a result of this Bill being enacted. If we do not get it in legislative provision, we need to get it in some sort of commitment to resource provision. That is why I feel unhappy with this Bill. I know exactly Deputy Higgins's feeling about the Department of Finance. It is not to give the opportunity to the Department of Finance to throw a spanner in the works that I suggest this, but it would be unsatisfactory to enact legislation on the understanding that the Department of Finance feels there are no resource implications within schools, and it is something we would come to regret; the Minister would be fighting bush fires with the Minister for Finance over the next number of years on the question of what he can do about helping principals to manage registers and so on.
There has been significant overstatement in terms of the additional obligations on schools. All schools maintain a register and did so prior to the introduction of this legislation. The legislation will impose a statutory obligation to do so. Now I am being told that maintaining a school roll is a new encumbrance. It should not be. There will be other subheads in terms of educational disadvantage initiatives. All schools are being surveyed over the next couple of months in terms of their needs and disadvantage. Schools will be asked to develop strategies to meet needs as they define them, and there will be funding for that.
Also in the budget, the Minister for Finance allocated another £15 million in a full year for additional secretarial and caretaking facilities for all primary schools. This is a major step forward which acknowledges the additional burdens imposed by legislation. This legislation will have some implications and, at long last, we are in a position to give decent secretarial and caretaking services to schools, and also some educational planning time to school principals to plan their actions in the light of this legislation.
Other subheads will provide additional resources, particularly to primary school principals and to second level principals. This service will also be of assistance to schools. We have to careful when we say the School Attendance Act, 1926, was ignored. By whom was it ignored? It was ignored by the Oireachtas and successive Governments, perhaps due to a lack of financial resources. We simply did not extend the service. We cannot be judgmental on a service that did not exist outside of the areas where there were school attendance officers. The Garda did it on a call basis now and again when they heard about a difficult child. There was no practice or policy in areas where there was not a school attendance service. For one reason or another the State did not create it. In areas where there are school attendance services there are good policies in operation and there is a good relationship between schools and the school attendance officers. It would be unfair to say it was ignored in those areas. However, It was not ignored and in many cases work has been done. I think they were in the wrong areas. The new Bill creates a better framework for the development of a welfare service.
I am reluctant to say anything given that 193 amendments have been tabled. This amendment stresses the widespread view that radical changes need to be made in providing resources if we are to get on top of the problem being discussed in the media — school attendance, truancy and so on. That raises a yardstick which I find unacceptable, that is, that the Garda Síochána is involved in calling to people's doors and criminalising — before a question is asked — the individuals who may have difficulties. Will an end be put to that yardstick?
Yes, there will be an end to that.
The problem is that in the past there has been a difference between the legislation and its implementation. This amendment is coming from that tradition. Much is being said and when it comes to the action we need to be reassured about it.
Perhaps Deputy Bruton's earlier amendment meets that request in that there will be an annual report on the operation of the Act.
I am as anxious as Deputy Sargent and perhaps we will gather speed as we go through other amendments. In explaining his amendment Deputy Bruton has raised an important issue. His amendment includes the words ". . . resource implications of the purposes or provisions involved for the Board, for schools and any other person or body involved. . . ". We have been talking about this matter and we can make progress in regard to the provision of resources for the existing players. The major difference between 1926 and now is the evolution in thinking concerning the rights of the child. It is important that such resources are available so that the children involved know their rights. School principals have got secretarial assistants and new welfare officers will be appointed. On issues such as school attendance the young person involved is entitled to know what is happening to them. That is an entirely new initiative about which I feel strongly. I believe that the rights of the child being taught and made available in all levels of the education system is totally unsatisfactory. That may be for another day but I know the Minister is in favour of developing school councils at second level.
Any youngster involved is put in a terrible position. They are the most vulnerable. For example, if anything is said in school a parent has to choose between calling their child a liar or calling the teacher a liar. We will come to that later in the Bill. It is a matter of being upfront about it. What attracts me to the amendment, as Deputy Bruton expanded on it, is ". . . any other person or body involved . . . ". I presume this means that some resources would be made available to explain to the children involved not only their rights but the consequences of actions. That is a new initiative and requires resources. There is no point pretending that giving a secretary to a school principal will provide that service.
It began by saying the schools would not have the resources when people talked about the register. I made the point then that additional resources were being provided to the schools and to the principals to help them in the area of support services. We are talking about the commencement of the Bill within 12 months. This is unnecessarily cumbersome. Section 33(1) which would be more significant reads:
The Board shall not later than the 31st day of March in each year prepare and submit to the Minister a report on its activities in the immediately preceding year and the Minister shall, as soon as may be, cause copies of the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
If Members wish to tighten this I would be willing to amend it and say that every year, a month after the publication of the report that comes before the House, it could come before this committee also. That would generate a debate on what is happening, what the board is doing, its officers, etc. and would be more significant in the longer term in ensuring the issue remains within the parliamentary focus, which is the desire of Members arising out of this debate. It means we cannot pass this Bill and forget about it for another 50 years. If it comes before the House every 12 months we can compare what expansion has taken place from year to year, its impact, the number of children being dealt with, helped, assisted and the response of schools, etc.
I want to give a concrete example of where I hope this legislation will be effective. In my constituency an eight year old child who has behavioural difficulties has been out of school for the past seven months. For the first four months the parents did not know to whom to turn. The Garda could only do so much. The child was not attending because the principal did not want to see him at school. No other school in the area would touch this child with a barge pole. Following the intervention of the Minister's inspectors an envelope of money was found to attract a school to take this child for one to one tuition to sort out the difficulties and get him back into mainstream education. This is the reason I argue in favour of the resourcing issue. School attendance and resourcing are everything. The identification of problem children requires additional money. Irrespective of secretaries and posts of responsibility being given to teachers, it is all about hands on help for children who are falling through the system. Unless we have that commitment and resources——
We have. The child to whom the Deputy referred is entitled to the service which he got. He correctly identified the flaw in the system. There was nowhere to go. That still applies. We made an announcement this morning in relation to special needs children. To whom do the parent go? Who takes up advocacy for the child? Following the enactment of this legislation, the educational welfare board will take up advocacy for the child and ensure it gets an education. In individual cases resources will not be the issue even if it means providing a resource teacher or a child care assistant in some instances. It could also be a chronic behavioural issue. We must create the structures and ensure there is a legal obligation on somebody to look after the child. What can happen is that the school expels without ensuring subsequent provision for the child.
This may well be a historic day in that it may be the last day the Minister joins us as Minister for Education and Science, if we are to believe what is said in the media. Indeed, there are rumours to the effect that the Chairman may be called to preferment as well.
I hope the Government does not fall today. That would be truly historic.
I am sure we can rely on the Minister to keep things going for another while until he gets his preferment or whatever it is tomorrow.
The amendment proposed by Deputy Bruton makes a lot of sense. As a former teacher, the Chairman will be aware that the implications for principals of any new legislation or procedures adopted are enormous. The Minister will be aware that the vast majority of primary school principals, for example, are full-time teaching principals. Most of them work in schools with fewer than eight teachers so they have virtually no additional resources. I have suggested how this should be done, and hopefully the Minister listened to me, but any legislation introduced puts new responsibilities on principals. They are not able to cope with teaching a class full-time while having to deal with all these matters also. Even minor areas, like changes in school transport, can cause major headaches for principals and the class or classes that principal is looking after are left to their own resources while he or she tries to sort out these matters.
Deputy Hayes gave an example of a child needing special education. I can appreciate that the principal in that school would have spent hours on the telephone talking to various people in the Department of Education and Science trying to get it resolved, and being passed from Billy to Jack. Numerous teachers have spoken to me about experiencing similar difficulties in that they cannot get in touch with the person who has responsibility in the Department. They are passed from person to person and a great deal of time is wasted. If a principal has a class of 30 children, and the teacher is absent for ten minutes — the time and motion people in a factory will say that 30 children by ten minutes is 300 minutes wasted — we must ensure that principal is covered for the period he or she is absent.
In the past week I was contacted by a principal in a special school. His difficulty was that until recently he had community employment workers helping out with the special needs children, but that help has been withdrawn. The slack is supposed to be taken up by the Department which is to appoint child care workers and so on, but schools are not getting the same volume of help. The people in FÁS told this person that the scheme has been abolished and it cannot provide any more workers but that if he designed a child care course, FÁS could provide trainees to work in the school under the guise of a child care course, and everything will he hunky dory. Where would the principal get the resources or the time to prepare such a course or supervise it? I realise this is not the fault of the Minister but these are not the only difficulties. Other impositions are responsible for the lack of resources. If that principal was properly funded, he would not need to bring in community employment scheme workers to help him. Hopefully the day will come when they are not needed, but how does he survive in the meantime? It is worthwhile to highlight the need to examine resource implications for any new legislation, and this discussion in itself is worthwhile.
I have no difficulty examining resource implications. That is a legitimate issue. What we are looking at here is the mechanism by which we monitor and examine the degree of resources being allocated to the service over this year and coming years. The specific amendment deals with orders that may be made in terms of commencing the various aspects of the Bill once it is passed. I have already said that a comprehensive package is on the table in terms of teaching principals. We set up a steering group last year which came forward with recommendations. The budget has provided resources which have enabled us to make an offer to the principals which is quite comprehensive in dealing with all the issues in that report and which will make a significant difference, not just in terms of secretarial and caretaker work but also in terms of time for teaching principals to undertake administrative duties. It will also reduce the point at which we appoint administrative principals as opposed to teaching principals. That package is almost concluded with the partners and it will make a difference next September when the new school year begins.
The resources issue is important. In terms of child care assistants, we appointed about 625 this year alone to national and special schools. In terms of community employment programmes in education, in the secretarial and caretaker areas we are working with FÁS to see if we can transfer the financial envelope FÁS is using for secretaries and caretakers in schools, combining that with the resources we have in education and getting a proper secretarial and caretaker service for schools. Talks are at an advanced stage in that regard.
Likewise, in terms of child care assistants, we hope to achieve the full target this year of child care assistants in all special schools, which clearly would remove the need for FÁS, but it must be remembered that schools will always look for additional community employment help in addition to base resources. I have no problem with that.
Was there not a difficulty in the changeover from the ad hoc situation that existed in the past?
Yes, there was a problem with that.
Somebody on a FÁS course may have spent 20 hours per week looking after a child on a one to one basis, but the Department in many instances approved seven and a half hours.
It is a needs based assessment, a professional assessment of the needs of the child. People are missing the point. We must have a needs based assessment that relates to the child. The community employment programme was a different type of initiative. It had very little to do with education but had to do more with employment issues in that it helped the long-term unemployed come off the register and get back into training. That did not happen in all cases, however. In some cases full-time child care assistants were used but we will not get an exact replacement of a community employment person in the special needs area. I suspect that would be the case in the secretarial and caretaker area.
The reason for the amendment is that there are huge gaps elsewhere in the Bill and this is an attempt, at the most, to try to fill them. For example, the Bill does not state that when the principal has maintained his register and parents have been informed of their obligations to have their child attend school, there is an expectation that perhaps 10% of the school going population of 40,000 primary pupils, who have some level of attendance difficulty, will need intensive intervention. There is no statement to the effect that the education and welfare service shall conduct an assessment of the identified priority children, set out a plan of the intervention it believes is necessary, mediate with other providers on the development of those services or, failing that, provide them elsewhere. The only place the Bill is eloquent about what happens in terms of planning and resourcing is when the child leaves school at age 17 or 18, but while the child still has contact with the education system, there is no section setting out the obligations of the welfare service in relation to that child. That is why I have continuous concerns about resource issues. I am concerned about the expansion of this service nationwide but also about what will happen when it has identified these problem children. The service providers will be left with a problem on their hands. We need to know the intention in relation to resourcing the plans to deal with these children. I do not know how many there are; they may number 4,000. We are told 3,000 are out on suspension every day. I propose to withdraw my amendment and to resubmit it on Report Stage. Will the Minister provide Members with a statement of a breakdown of the £4.5 million in the meantime? To where will that money be allocated? How much of it will go towards the employment of educational welfare officers and how much will be allocated to active intervention measures outside the school system?
It is all related to setting up the system. Other subheads in the Education budget deal with the other issues in terms of educational disadvantage, intervention strategies and so on.
I would like an authoritative statement from the Minister outlining how the money will be allocated and the various pots that will be dipped into.
I explained earlier that a steering committee has been established in the Department.
This is the last chance we will have to discuss the education welfare issue in its full context.
I may have that information by Report Stage.
We can question the Minister on school caretakers and other issues during debates on future Estimates, but this is our last opportunity to discuss the education welfare issue in its full context. It would be useful to have a clear statement on the resourcing implications of the legislation from the Minister before Report Stage, what will be in the envelope and a breakdown of that figure. People will want to know how this service will work in practice. I am glad the Minister indicated he is willing to do that and it may be possible to drop this amendment on Report Stage. I propose to withdraw the amendment.
Let us not spancel the board. To take a figure of 10%, say, 6,000 or 10,000 children, and approach this issue as if they would all have the same needs and require the same interventions is not the correct basis on which to proceed.
That is the point the Deputy made, as if absenteeism is eminently quantifiable, which it is not. The issue covers a wide spectrum ranging from short-term absenteeism to more chronic absenteeism and other problems.
We will have to allow educational welfare officers who work with schools to come up with strategies in a local context. Such strategies could be very effective and could be implemented through the utilisation of existing resources or through drawing down additional resources under initiatives to address disadvantage and so on.
The functions of the educational welfare board lay out a comprehensive framework, which will allow it to advise all schools on corrective and positive proactive strategies in terms of school attendance. It is not a case that the board will only kick into action when difficulties emerge. We are as interested in rewarding good attendance patterns as in intervening where it is necessary. We must create a culture where attendance at school is celebrated and incentivised. We suffer from a significant research deficit in regard to many areas of our education system. Part of a function of the board will be to engage in research into why we have problems of absenteeism, to carry out further research and use its findings to advise schools on developing corrective strategies. A steering committee has been established to work out a timeframe for the establishment of the educational welfare board and devise a programme of action to set it up. I am not sure if the information the Deputy requires will be available before Report Stage and in that regard I will not specify everything involved. Adverting to Deputy Higgins's original point, it might not be the best idea in some respects. How long is a piece of string? I could give Members a view of what the ultimate picture is and frighten them in terms of cost involved.
The lady doth protest too much. I do not know who said that but Deputy Higgins might be able to tell me. The more the Minister talks, the more worried I get about what the Department is committed to in relation to the making this a reality. The educational welfare service will dip into resources that are available to it and encourage better utilisation of existing resources. We know from the Clondalkin study that 12.5% of children are chronically absent from school. That means they are absent more than half the time they should be at school. Clondalkin would not be the worst area in this regard. We know a great deal about the extent of this problem and we also know it cannot be easily resolved. The Minister said a £4.5 million envelope would be available and I want him to tell us how that money will be made up. I want to be able to say the Minister has a realistic grasp of the resourcing implications of this service and that I am happy we are moving forward on a proper basis or that we are not taking this problem seriously enough. This legislation must be passed on an informed basis of what is intended. I want the Minister to inform me about that between now and Report Stage. I know he cannot predict everything. He cannot tell us the level of absenteeism in Dublin 17 . The committee is entitled to some fleshing out of the resource implications involved. That is what most of the people in the field want to know. While the methodologies are fairly well known, the problem is that we are unable to apply them.
All the methodologies are quite well known in all instances. There are other subheads. The importance of the new deal is that it is an integrated approach to addressing educational disadvantage. Part of the approach includes the establishment of an educational welfare board, which includes money for such initiatives as the stay in school initiative. That is a second level initiative to improve school attendance and eradicate early school leaving in certain areas where there is chronic early school leaving. Significant moneys have been set aside under that subhead and at primary level money has been set aside under the primary disadvantage initiative under the new deal. This must be viewed almost as a picture. Is the Deputy saying £4.5 million should be used to address this issue and that more money is required to implement initiatives to address educational disadvantage? In many respects the educational welfare officer will be part of a team like the home school liaison teacher and others.
We do not want this to be part of a three card trick where one lifts the cup and you find there is nothing underneath.
I could never understand the three card trick.
The Minister is not a bad exponent of it.
It applied to Munster finals long ago. There was always a sense of wonder at the three card trick when I was outside the Munster final groups in Killarney but I could never figure it out.
The bottom line is will the Minister provide us with his report before Report Stage?
I may not be in a position to provide it before Report Stage.
No, I just want to be honest. The steering committee is up and running in terms of fleshing out the proposals for the establishment of the service. Other money has been set aside for the establishment of the service in 2000. As soon as this legislation is passed we can start work on it.
That is a sum of £150,000.
Yes, but at the rate we are going, we will be lucky if the legislation is passed before the middle of the year. It has taken a long time to get this Bill into Committee. Money has been set aside for the establishment of the agency.
I understand Deputy Bruton's point. There are two issues involved, one is to get the service up and running which will have a general application — that the thrust of the legislation — and the other is that there is an identified cohort of youngsters who are in difficulty. That problem precedes the establishment of the steering committee and other considerations that will take place after the board is up and running. While one may be satisfied there are sufficient resources under the subheads to bring the new service into existence, it is reasonable to ask if it is possible to identify the prioritised aims within the new service from day one up to a year's time. If it is possible to indicate what sources have been made available to address these priorities, will we be able identify these prioritised aims? Confusion arises in the administration of the service, and that applies not only to the Department bringing this new service into existence. I am wary of that. If one puts an ISDN line outside every school, one can say one has brought every school into the information age. However, that is only an abstract piece of whimsy unless people are speaking to each other.
The issue is whether thousands of youngsters in trouble will, in the first year, have a new resourced service to which they will have access or whether, after a year, we will be told that the general service has come into being and that the needs are known. These are two different things. To ask if it will be possible, between now and consideration of a related amendment on Report Stage, to see the provision, or absence of provision, for priorities in the coming 12 months seems to be a reasonable request.
How stands the amendment?
I will withdraw the amendment but I am disappointed. I know the Minister cannot have everything he would like in a report he provides before Report Stage and I accept that constraint. However, I get the impression that he is trying to avoid even giving the committee what he has.
I gave the figures for this year, next year and the year after.
The Minister mentioned £250,000, £1.4 million and £2.5 million but since the existing service is probably costing more than £250,000 he is not talking about an expansion.
People will want to see——
The Minister made nothing clear.
I made it clear that it was additional to the existing service. The existing service transfers——
We want to see the basis on which that is being assessed.
I am telling the committee on the record.
The Minister is giving us a figure. Does that mean he will have——
The Deputy knows as well as I do that when going through the Estimates I do not have the other Departments' subheads under mine yet. Practical issues have to be worked out.
The Minister has some idea at present
There are people working in the school attendance service——
I do not want to dwell on this but we have a fair idea of the number of children who will have to be given priority——
The Deputy knows I cannot predict or decide the Estimates for the next five years.
I am not trying to do that. The Minister has already given the committee two figures, £2.5 million and £4.5 million, at different stages. We want a breakdown of them. Does it mean that within the £4.5 million the Minister will be able to carry out assessments of X thousand children and put in place a planning resource in respect of Y thousand children? Does he believe this is something which has to develop and that the following year the figure will increase? We want an indication of what we are talking about in terms of resources in both the national spread of welfare officers and intervention with the children who come to the officers' attention. The £4.5 million must have come from somewhere. It is not enough to say "that is our envelope".
Let us see the basis of the estimates so that we know these figures are not off the top of somebody's head.
They are estimates. It is something that was never provided for before and was disgracefully ignored by previous Governments.
I am blessed that I do not have a long memory——
In one sense it is quite a short memory.
However, I remember the then Deputy Martin on the Opposition benches excoriating the then Minister, former Deputy Bhreathnach, for refusing to provide him with information on the resource assessment of legislation that was before the House. Time and again he excoriated her about it on the Order of Business. I have not done that here but I want to see something of this resourcing implication because it is key to what happens with this legislation.
The fundamental difference between then and now is that I have provided a figure. I have not only estimated the figure but have provided for it in the Estimates.
Read the record. That was not what the then Deputy sought. He looked for the full report. We are not looking for the full report. We are seeking an indicative report of how many children will be reached, what they will be reached with, how many officers will be in the field and so forth.
Has the Minister finished his reply?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 1 agreed to.
Amendment No. 190 is cognate to amendment No. 4. Amendments Nos. 4 and 190 may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 4, after "means" to insert "an Bord Náisiúnta um Leas Oideachais or in the English language".
Tá súil agam nach bhfuil na leasaithe seo conspóideach. Baineann siad i ndáiríre le prionsabal atá agam féin, sé sin, go ndéanfaí tagart do bhóird ar leibhéal náisiúnta san fhoirm Ghaeilge.
Tá mé báiúil do na leasaithe atá molta ag an Teachta Higgins. Sé an comhairle atá faighte agam ná go bhfuil deacracht ann mar de réir dealraimh anois ní dhéanann siad é seo de ghnáth. Ach ba mhaith liom dul ar ais go dtí an draughtsman, a rá leis go n-aontaím leis an Teachta, an Bord a chur isteach roimhré, agus glacadh leis na leasaithe. Caithfidh mé níos mó comhairle a fháil mar níl mé sásta leis an bhfreagra atá agam.
Tagaim go mór leis an dá leasú ach tá íona orm go ndúirt duine leis an Aire nach raibh sé de nós againn é sin a dhéanamh mar tá feicthe agam le roinnt mhaith billí go mbíonn an leagan Gaeilge agus Béarla taobh le taobh. B'fhéidir go bhféadfaí é sin a chur i gcuimhne don duine a thug an comhairle don Aire.
Níl fhios agam cad é an t-ord a bheadh ann.
Go mbeadh an Ghaeilge ann . . .
De ghnáth bíonn an Béarla roimh an Ghaeilge i reachtaíocht eile.
Ní thuigim cén fáth ó thaobh an Bhunreachta nach mbeadh an Ghaeilge——
Tá mé buioch den Aire ní amháin go bhfuil sé báiúil ach go bhful sé sásta dul ar ais go dtí an dréachtóir agus b'fhéidir na leasaithe a chur isteach. Mar sin, tá mé sásta na leasaithe a tharraing siar go dtí an Report Stage agus b'fhéidir faoin am sin beidh an comhairle faighte ag an Aire.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 17, to delete "whichever occurs later,".
This is the definition section. Essentially, the Minister is saying that a child is a person who has not reached the age of 16 years or has not completed three years of post-primary education, "whichever occurs later". What happens to a child who has completed junior certificate but has not yet reached the age of 16 years? If the Minister is making it compulsory for that young person to remain in school, what provision does he intend to make for the year between completing the junior certificate and reaching the age of 16 years? There appears to be a gap. No such provision currently exists for people who have completed junior certificate and who intend to leave school to enter employment or training. This legislation says the person cannot leave school for the time being. Where will these people be slotted? There is no existing provision.
There could be. It could be an apprenticeship, Youthreach or transition year in the school.
None of those things is school ——
Section 15(18) states:
This section does not apply to —
(a) a child who is being educated at a school outside the State, or
(b) a child who is participating in a programme of education, training, instruction or work experience prescribed by the Minister.
A person will comply with this if they move on to satisfactory training.
The idea is to let the child go on to something meaningful that will lead to certification or qualification.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 6, subsection (1), line 28, after "1970" to insert "including an Area Health Board".
The purpose of the amendment is to take into account structures such as the new Eastern Health Board. I understand the area health boards are not health boards for the purposes of the 1970 Act. In the discussion in the Seanad, the Minister said the parliamentary draftsman thought the amendment was unnecessary. However, that has been succeeded by the publication of the Comhairle Bill, 1999, which follows the pattern of my amendment.
It can be reconsidered for Report Stage but my advice is that it is unnecessary. The parliamentary draftsman has said that the meaning of the amendment is incorporated in the definition as drafted.
From researching this matter, I am aware that was the reply given when the Bill was before the Seanad. However, the formulation in my amendment prevails in the Comhairle Bill which is currently before the Oireachtas. I am happy to accept that it will be considered between now and Report Stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are related to amendment No. 7 and all may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 1, after "regulations" to insert "made under section 4(1)”.
I perceive a technical need for these amendments. The Bill as drafted envisages regulations being made, but there is no explicit section conferring the power to make the regulations. The purpose of amendments Nos. 7, 11 and 12 is to introduce the power. There are several references in the Bill to regulations being made but there is a technical omission because there is no explicit section giving such powers to the Minister of the day.
The Bill refers to "prescribed".
I am told that means prescribed by regulation.
I will come back to that point. It is a serious drafting oversight because——
I have no problem including it. The Deputy is suggesting the Minister of the day should have absolute guarantees that he or she can make regulations.
Yes. The three amendments are well grouped on this occasion because amendment No. 7 would prevail if amendment No. 11 is accepted.
It is stated on page 7 of the Bill that "'prescribed' means prescribed by regulations, and cognate words shall be construed accordingly".
That would not suffice in relation to the giving of power.
This has been checked with the Office of the Attorney General.
Amendment No. 11 states that the Minister may make regulations prescribing anything referred to in this Act as prescribed or to be prescribed. In relation to prescription, my construction is that there is a presumption that there will be regulations but there is not an explicit reference to the powers under which the regulations will be made. It would be tidier if that reference was made. If that was the case, all the other references to prescription would logically fall into place.
We have checked this with the Office of theAttorney General and it confirmed that it is fine. It is satisfied that the Bill as drafted meets those concerns. However, in light of the points raised on Committee Stage, I will go back to the Office of the Attorney General to get an absolute guarantee. Perhaps the matter could be resolved on Report Stage.
I will not press the form contained in the amendments. My point is that perhaps the office could suggest a section which would specifically state that the Minister has the power. It would make the Bill easier. I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that the drafting and the Attorney General's advice will be considered on Report Stage. I will make a response at that stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 81 to 85, inclusive, 146, 153 and 155 are consequential on amendment No. 8 while amendments Nos. 53, 74, 86, 87 and 91 are related. Amendments Nos. 75 and 77 are alternatives to amendment No. 74 while amendments Nos. 57 and 59 are related to amendment No. 75. Therefore, amendments Nos. 8, 53, 57, 74, 75, 77, 79, 81 to 87, inclusive, and 91, 146, 153 and 155 may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 7, subsection (1), to delete lines 3 and 4.
Are they all the Minister's amendments?
Many of them are consequential amendments arising from a change of language.
Are they all in the Minister's name?
No, we are only dealing with amendment No. 8 at the moment.
Some of them are the Deputy's amendments, such as amendment No. 57. Amendment No. 53 was tabled by Deputy Higgins and amendment No. 77 was tabled by Deputy Sargent.
Will the Minister explain the text and how the amendments are all related? For example, some of my amendments relate to changing "may" to "shall".
They also relate to the deletion of "prescribed minimum education" and the insertion of "certain minimum education". This is a fundamental issue which relates to the Supreme Court decision in July on a school attendance issue.
The amendments I am proposing arise out of the Supreme Court judgment last July in a school attendance case and are proposed on the advice of the Attorney General. Amendment No. 8 reflects the deletion of section 14 from the Bill. The deletion means there is now no need for this definition in the definition section and causes the change from "prescribed minimum education" to "certain minimum education" throughout the Bill. Amendments Nos. 78, 81 to 85, inclusive, 146, 153 and 155 relate to the change of terminology from "prescribed" to "certain".
I am also proposing an amendment to provide for the deletion of section 14. This section provided for the Minister, after consultation with the NCCA, to prescribe a minimum education for children being educated outside the recognised school system. This section was driven by the need to establish a definitive minimum education standard particularly for children being educated outside the recognised school system. However, the Supreme Court in the judgment to which I referred established that, where necessary, the District Court can assess whether a child is receiving a minimum education. This decision has allowed the redrafting of this element of the Bill to provide for a more flexible and effective approach to dealing with the issue.
Amendment No. 91 provides that the Minister may issue guidelines for the purpose of assisting the board in determining whether a child is receiving a certain minimum education. Amendment No. 86 provides that in carrying out its functions, the board shall have regard to guidelines issued by the Minister under section 17. These guidelines, drawn up in consultation with the NCCA, will assist the board in coming to a decision about whether a child is receiving a minimum education. It will mean that the educational welfare officer will have more flexibility to assess each case on its merit rather than imposing a single rigid and perhaps artificial standard in each case.
Amendment No. 74 provides for a more flexible system to assess whether children are receiving a minimum education. The first part of subsection (5) will allow for less intensive scrutiny of the methods of education to be used in educating the child in question. By consulting with parents engaged in educating their child and considering the materials being used or to be used in educating a child, the time being spent or to be spent on the education and the education that is to be provided or is being provided, the authorised person may be able to satisfy himself or herself that a minimum education is being provided without the need for a more detailed and intrusive assessment. If the authorised person is not satisfied, the more intensive process will be used. However, this addition provides for a more flexible and balanced process for determining the educational achievement of a child who is being educated outside the recognised school system.
Amendment No. 87 is technical and defines the process of the entering of the name of a child onto the register for children being educated outside the recognised school system. I do not intend to accept amendments Nos. 53 or 57. The effect of them would be to significantly weaken the role of the board in assessing whether a child is receiving a minimum education. In any case, the amendments fall with the deletion of section 14.
I do not intend to accept amendments Nos. 75 and 77 tabled by Deputy Bruton and Deputy Sargent, respectively. The effect of these amendments would be to actively involve in the State in unrecognised forms of education. It is not my view that the State has an appropriate role here. However, I recognise the need to assist parents to ensure that the constitutional right of children to education is upheld. I will consider this aspect of the amendments further, with a view to revisiting the issue on Report Stage.
I do not propose to accept amendment No. 79. The combined effect of this amendment, together with previous amendments proposed by the Deputy to this section, would be to eliminate almost entirely any process to assess whether a child is receiving a minimum education and would engage the education welfare service in establishing an alternative education system. This has resource implications clearly but, perhaps more importantly, it has constitutional implications, in that it would probably be in breach of a parent's right to educate their children as they see fit. The State's only involvement is to ensure that whatever education is provided meets the child's constitutional right to a minimum education.
The Minister's changes are welcome. The concept of a defined minimum education was creating difficulties in implementing this, particularly for home educators. The more flexible approach the Minister is signalling here is the right way to go. However, there will be issues about the extent to which inclusive methods of investigation can occur where the Minister is not satisfied. We need to tease those out in later sections.
The Minister is taking a strange approach to amendment No. 75, which I tabled, in that he indicated he did not regard it as the State's role to support home educators. The amendment suggests that the board would designate one of its officers with appropriate skills to act as an assessor of the education being received by a child at home. The board would provide support and advice to parents educating their children at home. The Minister said he does not think it is appropriate for the State to do that. I am not sure that is entirely in accord with the constitutional position.
While the parent is the primary educator, it is the duty of the State to ensure children get a minimum education. We need to find a balance between the parent's right as the primary educator and the State's right to ensure the child gets a minimum education. I thought that the right balance would be for the State to assist as far as it could but to intervene if it found, having offered appropriate help, that parents still could not provide the minimum level of education. The Constitution envisages somewhat more positive action on the part of the State to support home educators than the statement just issued by the Minister. I quibble with what he said in that regard.
The Minister states in amendment No. 91 that he will issue guidelines. What is envisaged in those guidelines? The previous ones were to state a minimum education but these are more flexible. Will this change result in any real difference?
"Prescribe" is much more rigid, in that it is saying these guidelines must be met.
Is it left to the court now to decide the extent to which——
In many ways, these guidelines should be of assistance to home educators. This is a difficult area, in that we are trying to strike a balance between the rights of parents and those of the child. To a certain extent, the Bill was somewhat misrepresented as going after home educators, which was never the intention. We are endeavouring to go after children who have been neglected by their parents and the system. That is the clear focus of the Bill. Home educators tend to take a very independent view and have already decided they do not want to go through the mainstream system. The vast majority of them have very clear ideas about education. I will reflect on this issue. We have tabled a later amendment which proposes that we would be of assistance where home educators experience difficulties educating at home.
However, we must be very careful. This is a much deeper question. We still have a great deal to do in the mainstream system in terms of resourcing and achieving higher standards. People can decide to leave the system and develop their own system. However, while we want flexibility and diversity, I have often heard the Deputy speak correctly in the House about standards. Taking a completely laissez faire approach to education provision can impact on standards. I am not saying that happens in all cases, but there is a danger of a complete drift.
I am glad to have an opportunity——
Sorry, we have not yet formally tabled an amendment on assisting parents who might difficulties with home education — we are looking at that in the context of tabling an amendment on Report Stage.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this aspect. From my understanding of home education, the involvement could not in any way be described as laissez faire. I am not sure to what the Minister was referring.
If we had a totally laissez faire approach, groups of people could set up schools here and there and——
I sought clarification of the laissez faire comment because it could be misunderstood.
It was not meant in the context of home educators.
I wanted an opportunity to clarify that.
We cannot be in favour of everything under the sun.
We should be in favour of worthwhile things. May I make my contribution?
What I meant by that is that we must strike a balance between the rights of the child and those of the parent. Sometimes the child can get lost in all this.
I heard the Minister say that earlier and I support it very much. However, it was a mistake to make home education part of this Bill because it has muddied the waters, to some extent. The wider issues of truancy and school attendance are badly in need of resources and the legislation is to be welcomed in that regard. The unfortunate aspect is that home education is put cheek by jowl with "problem children", for want of a better phrase, that is, children who are not benefiting from formal or informal education. Difficulties have been created by the inclusion of home education in the Bill because we must separate the issues of what motivates parents to take action.
I was interested to hear the Minister say there is a constitutional problem with becoming too involved with home education. The issue raised by people involved in home education is that under this Bill the State will become very involved in home education, particularly with the home visits where an inspector would call to a house and, without a warrant or any indication of a problem, demand to be in situ while the education is taking place. My amendment, which is similar to others, seeks to ensure the Minister can be satisfied that the child’s rights are protected, while avoiding the constitutional problem of intruding in the home environment. By having an adviser rather than an inspector, which is what I am seeking in amendment No. 77, the tone is much more positive and supportive. Hopefully, such an adviser could avoid decisions as to who is right or wrong being made by a Circuit Court judge. The Minister could give much more thought to helping those involved, as happens in other countries. The Minister probably has all the various material from other countries concerning home schooling and the claims that are made for children who are fortunate enough to have parents who can devote so much time to them. Home education should be supported; it is a constitutional option and from an educational viewpoint it seems to be very successful. Would it be possible to transfer the aspect of home visits to a neutral venue as I am proposing in amendment No. 77, where a portfolio, video recording, sound recordings and the preparation of that assessment——
Amendment No. 74 would cover that.
We are still talking about home visits.
In consultation with the parents? We can firm that up if the Deputy wishes. It does not have to be at the home.
There is still a feeling that traditionally the State is insisting on home visits and if this Bill is to be seen as a yardstick——
Every child is covered by the Bill, not just home educated children.
That is right. It makes it kind of awkward in terms of the motivation behind the parent.
I have made a number of comments and one was that the focus will be on children who are in difficulty. Obviously, the legal framework is complex and the education welfare board has a proactive role as well as an advocative role for the child. The proactive role is involved where there is no problem with school attendance but, nonetheless, where the board wants to inform schools of strategies to encourage school attendance. That applies to every child in the country, irrespective of location. It would be interesting to tease out who defines the home educator. The home educator who is committed to this process, has researched it and — as the Deputy said — is anxious to do it, has nothing to fear. But, in the past, we have had cases where parents never even set themselves up as home educators but for one reason or another — perhaps because of a whole range of problems — neglected to provide, or to ensure, that their children received an education. How do you actually tackle that?
If you are asking them for a portfolio and all the assessment indicators, then you have a problem if they do not play ball.
The new amendments are much more flexible.
They still do not meet with the absolute approval of many of the people who suggest that they be made.
People may be afraid of the heavy hand of the State.
They have had the experience of gardaí coming to the door and the courts being involved, so what should be a very important and helpful educational experience for their children can be quite traumatic.
This large grouping of amendments has drawn many different issues together, including the deletion of section 14 which, I accept, changes the Bill considerably. It goes some way towards meeting some of the points made in correspondence with those of us who are spokespersons on Education. There are a number of outstanding issues and it may be as well to air them now. The worry at the basis of the submissions we received is not so much the heavy handedness of the State but more explicitly a definition of State education that is unsympathetic to other forms and models of education. Consequent to this was the notion that the State system of general education could not be assumed to be the most appropriate to those who were following a different model of education. One then comes to the content of the assessment and the mode of implementing it. What still survives — even after the deletion of section 14 which we are now examining in this group of amendments — is the notion of visitation. With such appropriate evidence of the education the child is receiving, some people are suggesting that it is more acceptable to bring the child — which might be a child about whom there might be some concern — to a neutral venue than the idea of a visitation. Yet, left within the Bill is the penumbra of what is being assessed. What is the visitor to the house assessing? Are factors other than the chosen educational model being assessed and are they extraneous? For example, to what extent is the model specific to the dominant form of education being applied in a deliberately chosen alternative option?
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to come some distance towards the representations that have been made to him. To be absolutely clear about this matter, I agree that the welfare and rights of the child are paramount. That point also flows through other comments I have made. After the deletion of section 14, what survives is the issue of visitation and the standard model of education which is assumed to be able to generate the mechanisms of assessment of an alternative model. Later in the Bill we will come to the issue of sanctions.
None of this has been helped by the text of the Bill as it made its way through the Seanad, in which there was an equivalence of such terms as "truancy" and "non-attendance" or "absence". A number of amendments which arise elsewhere seek to use words such as "non-attendance", which is very different from "truancy".
The deletion of section 14 will have a consequent effect. It is important for those of us who have other amendments——
The subsequent amendments have been accepted, even though I do not actually accept that the language used will have to be changed. Let us not overstate the impact of that either.
I am not doing so, but neither do I want to create the slightest impression at this early stage that the deletion of section 14 answers the point. It does not, but we will come back to that point which is a housekeeping issue.
The bones of the Bill are in section 74 where the Minister sets out the more flexible assessment. It seems more positive, although I am still uneasy about the fact that everyone in home education has to apply to go on the register. There is no presumption that people are able to educate. I would have preferred to allow people to go on the register and then let them be withdrawn if the board feels they are not reaching a standard. The Minister has turned that presumption around. In the section, the Minister recognises that parents might not give their consent to an authorised person to enter the place at which the child is being educated and to observe the child. The Minister seems to explicitly recognise that parents have such a right. As I understand it, however, if parents do not give that consent they will not go on the register.
Parents have a recognised right to say they do not want an authorised person to enter their home but if they refuse entry it is immediately presumed they are not fit persons to educate in the home. How soundly based is that apparent presumption? Is the Minister saying that such parents cannot continue to educate their children and, if so, is he within his right to make that presumption? The parent is the primary educator and there may be a legal difficulty for the State to conclude that parents are unfit persons to educate simply because they refuse access to a certain officer.
Under section 10 the assessment is envisaged to include not only the intellectual and physical development but also the emotional development of the child. The concept of the State deciding on the emotional development of the child has raised concerns among parents who are home educators. What right has the State to assess without notice the emotional state of the child? Is it going beyond its constitutional duty to ensure that a child receives a primary education? Will there be potential litigation on this issue on the basis that parents may take the view this was not envisaged in the Constitution?
There is a need for the Minister to explain these provisions because some people take the view they are intrusive. While it is welcome that they will become operative only when there is prima facie evidence that things are not working out, some of them appear to be sailing close to the wind in terms of trying to remove from parents their primary rights as educators. What legal advice has the Minister obtained on this?
The Bill received close legal attention. The School Attendance Act, introduced in previous times, failed the test of constitutionality. Therefore, when drafting the Bill careful consideration was given to balancing the rights of the child with the rights of parents as primary educators. There is a holistic definition of the educational development of the child which involves emotional, intellectual and physical development. There will be separate assessment of the emotional development of the child. The State's guidelines on abuse of children, issued some years ago, encompassed the definition of "emotional" as being a very important factor in terms of abuse. While the context is different here, any assessment of the rights and entitlement of children runs the gamut from physical to intellectual to emotional.
Irrespective of the context, the Bill endeavours to ensure that children receive a basic minimum education. It could be given in or out of school or in the home. The question is to ensure children have that basic entitlement and the infrastructures the State should put in place to ensure that the constitutional right of the child is being met in all cases. The amendment is an attempt to balance that within a reasonably flexible framework and to enable the State to make such provision in a less intrusive way than was perhaps originally envisaged.
Amendment No. 74 takes a two tier approach. It states:
. . . the Board shall . . . cause an authorised person to carry out, in consultation with the parent who made the application, an assessment of—
(a) the education that is being provided, or that it is proposed will be provided, to the child,
(b) the materials used, or that it is proposed will be used, in the provision of such education, and
(c) the time spent, or that it is proposed will be spent, in the provision of such education,
Following that initial consultation and once the board receives a report on the assessment, as provided for in section 15(8), if it is still unhappy or uncertain that an education is being provided it shall, "with the consent of the said parent", cause an authorised person to enter a place. In the absence of such consent the board can revert to the courts or fail to register the child, but that would be a last resort.
Does that not give the board a new power? Is it not the case that if a parent refuses to admit an officer into the home the board will conclude that the parent is an unfit person to provide an education for the child?
No, that conclusion is not reached. The board is merely trying to satisfy itself that all is well.
However, if registration is refused it means the parent will not be allowed to continue and will be told to bring the child to school. The board will not go to court, rather it will be for the parent to litigate against the validity of that decision.
For one reason or another some parents have failed in terms of educating their children. I do not want to create a legal loophole that would enable parents to opt out of their responsibilities and where the State has no recourse to address that. There is a dilemma here between facilitating the genuine education of children, in whatever context, while at the same time allowing enough resources to the State, both legal and financial, to try to help those children whose education rights are not being provided or developed. We can reflect on the Deputy's concerns between now and Report Stage to see if we can fine tune the framework.
I appreciate the Minister is trying to balance the rights of the child and the parents. However, dealing with the issue of home education through what is effectively a school attendance Bill distorts the good intention behind trying to achieve that balance.
The purpose of the Bill is not to deal with home education. On the basis of the Deputy's argument, a legal case could be made that the purpose of the Bill is to deal with primary education and address schools and a variety of other issues.
The Minister said the Bill was primarily concerned with school attendance and that should be the focus of the select committee.
In all my speeches on the Bill I have made it clear that we are concerned with a minimum education as opposed to schooling. It could cover Youthreach, apprenticeships and so on. We are concerned with ensuring that young people up to the age 16 years have access to and are provided with meaningful education provision.
I am referring to the Minister's statement earlier that school attendance should be the primary focus. The provisions on home education should, therefore, be allocated a separate part of the Bill so that those affected can read and understand them. They deal with what has become a vibrant and healthy worldwide movement involving parents who have gone the extra mile in their desire to educate their children at home. They need to understand that the Department sees what they are doing as valid and does not view them with suspicion, which is what these provisions appear to suggest. I know it is not intended to be that way. When the Minister asks us to understand the thinking here, can he understand that these parents feel they are almost being criminalised?
Yes, I can understand the concerns and that is why I moved to amend the Bill.
When the Minister is amending it could he try to have a section on home education? If I were in his shoes, I would prefer separate legislation.
But that might be the last thing home educators want.
That is not my understanding.
They do not want the State to tell them how to do their business. This is where we get into trouble again. On the one hand one is accused of being too intrusive. On the other hand if one moves to a legislative framework for home education in terms of the broad issues, one could end up in all sorts of trouble.
I provided in my amendment that it should be in the form of an adviser. Home education should be nurtured by the State through an adviser and independent assessment so that people can be reassured that they are doing a good job and can feel they are being recognised for doing a good job. When the Minister is thinking of amendments, he should bear that point of view in mind.
I support Deputy Sargent's amendment No. 77 in this regard in that it is a huge administrative and intellectual transition to move from schooling to education. The history of the Department and its predecessor and the origins of the 1926 Act are about school attendance. I am not making any imputation except the most benign ones about what everyone, including the Minister, has said so far, but one would not want to underestimate the huge transition between that and education. In a way what amendment No. 77 addresses, what caused a great deal of the controversy and what has been at the base of the correspondence I have received, is that people have chosen a form of education which is different. It requires a great deal of time and commitment; it has its own ups and downs and it has its own mechanisms of possible assessment. The worry always was that to date the nature of the machine has been that it be structured on what happened at school. That is understandable because that is where most children are educated.
The attitude the Minister should take to the rest of the amendments is that if we accept in good faith that the deletion of section 14 indicates an attitude, let us see the attitude followed through in the same response to the other amendments on forms of visitation, modes of invigilation, techniques of assessment, etc. I am happy to deal with them as we come to them.
My amendments, amendments Nos. 75 and 79, are wrapped up in this. Amendment No. 75, like Deputy Sargent's amendment, envisaged that an assessor would provide a parent with such advice or support as appropriate to assist the parent in delivering a satisfactory standard of education at home. The Minister stated, in an aside, that he was considering a Report Stage amendment to provide for some supportive mechanism. Before we leave these amendments, it would be interesting to hear his initial thoughts on a support mechanism and how that would work.
Amendment No. 79 envisages reversing the system in the Act, in which no parent may conduct education at home unless he or she receives approval. It envisages that it would be the other way round, that approval would be automatic in that one would register but approval would be withdrawn if the board found one was not up to an acceptable standard. I do not know how many parents educate their children at home but, effectively, the Minister is telling them they must apply to get approval. They cannot continue to do what they are doing unless the board accepts their application and they undergo this process. Would it not have been more acceptable and indicate greater support for what they are doing if the Bill allowed them to be registered initially and if they did not come through the process, the board could withdraw their registration? Why has the Minister taken the other route, where effectively he is saying that anything like this is not Kosher and it will be deemed a satisfactory way to proceed only if we put them through all these hoops?
The fundamental focus of the Bill from the beginning has been on the rights of the child.
However, the Constitution states that one must assume the parent is doing a good job until it is found to be otherwise.
It does not. It states that the State has obligations to the child also.
One can quote different parts of the Constitution.
I am not quoting from it. It is about balance.
I agree, and the Minister explicitly said so on Second Stage.
For years one of the great arguments on that side of House was that there was nobody looking after the child.
Obviously nobody is saying that.
They have been saying it. The debate changes, depending on when it suits the argument. It is time we had a Bill which was rigorously——
Why has the Minister chosen to presume that a parent is not——
I am not presuming. Deputy Bruton has correctly talked about databases, tracking children and international comparisons on literacy, numeracy, etc., and he has made consistent points with which I agree. The idea of having a register is not a presumption of good, bad or evil.
We do not have this level of invigilation of schools. Let us be honest.
We do, actually. We assess schools. We need more assessment and we need to appoint more inspectors to properly evaluate schools at primary level. I accept that and we are doing so. That is one reason some of the reactions are completely overstated. All I am saying is we need a framework to make sure that the rights of the child are being adhered to without withdrawing the constitutional right of anybody to educate his or her children. I also feel that the wider issue of home education cannot be looked at totally in terms of assistance or making the system respond in terms of curriculum guidelines or the provision of inspectors to call in to offer advice. These are wider issues which in time can be looked at with home educators.
The Minister should be looking at options in education.
I look at options in certain areas but it needs a fairly reflective overall debate.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 7, subsection (1), line 6, after "person" to insert "(other than a person to whom that section applies)".
This is a technical amendment to clarify the role of the principal in the Bill. The Bill provides for a range of roles for the principal teacher of each school. It is not intended that this provision should mean that the principal must take sole responsibility for each role. Rather it is a core function of the principal to delegate these activities to members of the school staff as appropriate in order to facilitate the effective running of the school. I am happy to make this amendment to alleviate any concerns which principals, in particular, might have had about this section.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 7, subsection (1), between lines 8 and 9, to insert the following definition:
" 'recognised alternative education provider' means a provider recognised by the Board as providing a minimum education;".
The Bill requires parents to have their child attend at school and provides that the education welfare service will develop alternatives in the event that nothing in the school suits the needs of the child. It does not seem as if the Bill recognises the alternative education providers, such as Youthreach services. It seemed strange to me that there was no statutory recognition of what happens in Youthreach programmes. Such programmes are becoming part of education provision and have become increasingly institutionalised following the transfer of responsibility for them from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the Department of Education and Science. Youthreach centres are doing good work and are seen by those who have difficulty attending school as offering a much more positive and supportive environment.
In my opinion the legislation on educational attendance and welfare should recognise Youthreach in some way. Other issues such as the standard of conditions, etc., accompany recognition, which is good. Youthreach has been a successful experiment and it should be brought into the fold and given statutory recognition as an education provider, to which certain commitments should be made by the State. What is the thinking of the Minister and his Department in relation to Youthreach?
It is stated that the Minister may prescribe what will be a minimum education. For example, section 15(18) states: "This section does not apply to a child who has been educated at a school outside the State, or a child who is participating in a programme of education, training, instruction or work experience prescribed by the Minister." We did not want to deal with specific types of alternative provision, other than mainstream schooling. I refer here to Youthreach, training centres, apprenticeships or other programmes which may evolve in the future through the NCVA system. For example, in the future certain students in their teenage years who may have had a poor education might choose the NCVA ladder of progression.
The overall provision is designed to cover the various options. The regulations which will follow the enactment of the Bill will allow for Youth reach, apprenticeships, traveller training centres——
Does the Minister envisage that the manager of a Youthreach programme will be obliged to maintain records of attendance——
——which could be inspected by the educational welfare officer? Will the educational welfare service be made aware that people who should be in Youthreach programmes are not attending?
The section makes no provision in that regard. For example, there is no reference to the manager of a Youthreach programme being required to maintain records similar to those kept in mainstream educational institutions. The fact that Youthreach is not recognised in the Bill as a formal provider means that it is not covered by some of the provisions which form the heart of the Bill.
The Deputy has a point. We will also have to take account of apprenticeships in order to ensure that proper records of attendance are kept. I will consider this matter before Report Stage. Clearly, what the Minister will prescribe in terms of minimum education will embrace not just school based activities.
I understand that, but the Minister should——
The educational welfare board would be responsible for ensuring that everything is in order. I take the Deputy's point about a manager of a Youthreach programme being responsible——
For maintaining records of attendance or informing the board if a person is expelled from the programme.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 2, as amended, agreed to.
I move: "That section 3 be deleted."
I have noted certain concerns that, legally, this provision risks appropriating too much power to the Minister of the day, power that rightfully belongs to the Oireachtas. I have also received advice from the Attorney General's office that the use of this section in the future could carry some risk of constitutional challenge. Rather than allow this uncertainty to stand I have decided to delete the provision. The result is that any further change to the school leaving age will be made by primary statute as opposed to doing so by order of the Minister. While I accept that this makes future changes to the school leaving age more cumbersome, it nevertheless ensures direct parliamentary supervision of this important issue. Basically we are ensuring that instead of a future Minister deciding to increase the school leaving age to 17 or 18 by regulation, the matter will have to come before the Oireachtas and primary legislation introduced.
Cumbersome as that may be, it is probably the right course of action to take. It is good that possible changes to the school leaving age will not be done at the stroke of a pen but will be positively debated.
Question put and agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 not moved.
Sections 4 to 6, inclusive, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 8, after line 47, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) In relation to a body corporate whose affairs are managed by its members, subsection (2) shall have effect as if 'director' included a member of the body corporate.".
This is a standard drafting provision. Do I understand that the Minister is amenable to considering it?
It is worth considering and I will consider it before Report Stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 7 agreed to.
Sections 8 and 9 agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 4.10 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.
Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 145 are related and may be taken together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 9, subsection (1), line 11, after "ensure" to insert ", with due regard to the rights of the parents,".
This amendment provides that the board, in ensuring that a child attends a recognised school or otherwise, receives a prescribed minimum of education with due regard to the rights of the parent. The Minister could say that, because of the constitutional provision, it is implicit the board must do so. Nonetheless, it would be good if it was made explicit in the Bill.
My thinking is not unrelated to what Deputy Bruton said. The provision which currently exists to ensure each child attends a recognised school or otherwise receives prescribed minimum education exhibits the implicit value system which applies here — that essentially schooling should be prioritised and education should be looked after if schooling is not the priority. If the constitutional wording was inserted, we would ensure parents exercise their right, either through a recognised school or otherwise. Essentially we are emphasising the constitutional provision for providing education, which primarily rests with the parents although the State has a role. The inalienable right of the parents provided for in the Constitution speaks for itself.
Amendment No. 145 provides for the role of parents where the board is making arrangements for a child to receive a minimum education, other than in a recognised school. This relates to a small number of cases where, despite the best efforts of the board and the education welfare officer, it is not possible to arrange for the admittance of a child who has been expelled from a school or refused enrolment to be admitted to another school. In these circumstances the board has a duty to ensure the child concerned still receives his or her constitutional entitlement to a minimum education. It is appropriate that the parents of the child should be consulted in these circumstances and this amendment will provide for this consultation.
I do not propose to accept amendment No. 14. The phrasing of this section provides that the board's focus is on the receipt by a child of education, either through a recognised school or through some other means. In both instances, the decision about education must be made by the parents. The Bill is quite clear that the board must respect that decision, save where the child is not receiving a minimum education. I am concerned the amendment might be interpreted as suggesting that the child's right to education is somehow diluted by the rights of parents. I wish to avoid this and as such I reject the amendment.
Deputy Sargent refers to the constitutional rights of parents as the primary educators of their children in amendment No. 15. All legislation must be drafted within the context of the Constitution and no legislation needs to affirm constitutional provisions. The Constitution obviously takes precedence over all legislation. I assure the Deputy this Bill fully respects both the constitutional role of all parents as primary educators of their children and their right to choose to educate their children outside the recognised school system. Subject to their ensuring their children receive a minimum education, the Bill will not intrude upon them in any way. Amendments were made earlier in terms of the wording as "prescribed" is now deleted and "certain" will replace it.
It would be interesting to put this in the context of other countries' legislation where the word "collaborative" is used in terms of working with parents as primary educators. I fear the section will read that each child attends a recognised school and the "or otherwise" becomes a second thought. That may be how it works statistically but I still think parents should be affirmed where possible to empower them to work in the best interests of their children. I appreciate that this must be framed in the context of the Constitution but that may be another day's work. Some people feel it is sailing quite close to the wind in terms of the Constitution but that is their prerogative.
We are respecting the Constitution in this legislation. We are not trying in any way to subvert basic constitutional rights.
There are other opinions in that regard.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 15 not moved.
Amendments Nos. 16, 17, 20, 151 and 152 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 9, subsection (1)(a), line 20, after "emotional," to insert "cultural, linguistic,".
This provides that the board promotes and fosters an appreciation of the benefits to be derived from education. The legislation lists a number of aspects of education which it sees as desirable. It was brought to my attention that cultural and linguistic aspects of education have been omitted from this list. There is always a danger that, when a list is drawn up, something is excluded. Culture and linguistics have traditionally been very important elements of education and they should be recognised explicitly rather than leaving them unstated.
Amendment No. 17 proposes that the legislation should recognise that increasingly the school environment will be required to be sensitive to different ethnic backgrounds. There is already the issue of different social backgrounds which can often contribute to success or failure in education. The legislation should explicitly state the type of environment schools are required to promote to allow full participation in life and recognise there are different social and ethnic backgrounds. This can range from travellers to different nationalities and can concern those from different social backgrounds to the majority of school staff.
Culture and linguistics are covered by the definition in the Bill and it might be a tautology to include references to them. In terms of social and ethnic backgrounds, I would be disposed to accepting the principle of those amendments with a view to coming back on Report Stage. I am assured they are covered by the definition of children in the Bill. However, to make absolutely sure and to reflect the changing situation and the complications under the UN convention, any child coming to this country is entitled to a basic and minimum education. That is the position of the Department. Therefore, all services and agencies under the remit of the Department have an obligation to respond to children of asylum seekers, refugees or those from different ethnic backgrounds. The only problem draftspeople have with lists is that, if something is left out, does that make it less important than what is included? It is the usual issue when drafting legislation. It might be important to send a signal in that direction and I would be interested in tabling an amendment on Report Stage involving the social and ethnic issues.
I would welcome that. We must be honest with ourselves and say that, among the travelling community, for example, where information is documented, non-attendance within the terms of the law prevails among 80% according to some surveys; 80% do not attend school as far as 15 years of age. There is no harm in making it explicit in the Bill, which is designed to deal with children who have difficulty continuing in the education system. It is not foreign to the intent of the Bill which essentially deals with children with specific problems in education. There is merit in explicitly recognising them.
I was looking at it more in terms of children of refugees.
I mean for both to be included.
Having met with the travelling community on a number of occasions, they are not necessarily disposed to categorisation in legislation for fear of stigmatisation.
At the same time, they would be very explicit about their belief that, much of the time, the school environment actively discourages participation because of texts which presume a certain vision of what is normal and which exclude their tradition.
They are covered by the Bill. It is a matter of including them in the terminology of ethnic and social.
Listening to the Minister's response, it is possible that the spirit of amendment No. 16 might be met to some extent in the text. One could make the case that "linguistic" is included in "intellectual". However, there is nothing in the definition so far which infers that the physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral development of children includes the term "cultural". This is important because the Department of Education and Science is the Department responsible for UNESCO and it has entirely missed that organisation's definition of education in the Bill. It is important that the Minister return on Report Stage in response to Deputy Bruton's amendment with something which deals with the cultural aspect. If that were included, the final text of section 10(1)(a), which refers to "the social and economic advantages which flow therefrom" would read as "the social, economic and cultural advantages which flow therefrom". This is the wording used by UNESCO.
We will do that on Report Stage to specifically include the word "cultural".
I support what Deputy Bruton has proposed in amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 20. It is farsighted and I welcome the Minister's response regarding the ethnic aspect of the amendments. There is a considerable amount of experience in Britain from which we could learn what worked and what did not in terms of having a broadly based and inclusive education system. In my experience of dealing with travellers, they are proud of their ethnic background. They may not want to be categorised separately to the point of being made to feel different but they do feel proud of their ethnic background. That would be well served by the inclusion of the amendment and I am glad the Minister is well disposed towards it. I would like to see the list extended. It may not be impossible to be exhaustive but the signal given is important. People will see that this section of the board's functions is inclusive and it will become more necessary as time goes on. It is a development of which we should be aware.
How stands the amendment?
As the Minister has expressed a willingness in both cases, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 17 not moved.
Amendments Nos. 18, 21, 28, 30 and 191 form a composite proposal.
The Chairman did not mention amendment No. 19 which is related to amendment No. 18. If amendment No. 18 is accepted, amendment No. 19 falls.
That is correct. If amendment No. 18 is accepted, amendment No. 19 cannot be moved. I am coming to amendment No. 19 in my comments. Amendments Nos. 19, 22, 29, 31 and 192 form an alternative composite proposal. The total proposal is amendments Nos. 18, 19, 21, 22, 28, 29, 30, 31, 191 and 192 and all may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 9, subsection (1)(c), lines 26 and 27, to delete "truancy" and substitute "absenteeism".
I move this amendment, which has included with it the related amendments Nos. 21, 28, 30 and 191, to remove the references to truancy in the Bill. Other Deputies have proposed the same or similar amendments, especially Deputy Higgins's amendments Nos. 19, 22, 29, 31 and 192 which have a similar intention. I agree with him that truancy is an inappropriate term to use in this context. However, I consider the word "absenteeism" preferable and, therefore, propose it as an alternative to "non-attendance". By using the term "absenteeism" we are providing a more correct as well as a less judgmental term to express our meaning.
The Minister and I are in agreement about the removal of the term "truancy" and I welcome that. It does not cause me the slightest difficulty, however, to stress the advantage of "non-attendance" over "absenteeism". There are many amendments and we will dispose of them as soon as this matter is made clear. The advantage of using "non-attendance" and the reason I thought of the term is that I wanted it to be neutral. It is simply non-attendance within one form, which happens to be the dominant form, of education which is delivered in schools. An equivalent example in religious practice would be where one is a non-attender, which leaves open the possibility that one is attending elsewhere, at home or not at all, and one is in completely reflective mode. Non-attendance has a maximum set of interpretations. Absenteeism, on the other hand, has a context which is often used in labour law. It assumes that one has an accepted prior obligation to attend or be present. Therefore, one can be marked absent. To that extent, there is a greater degree of control in the term "absenteeism" and I prefer "non-attendance" for that reason. To turn it from a negative into a positive, non-attendance raises the issue of why a person is not attending. It is philosophically a much more attractive term, whereas the other term comes from an atmosphere of control. I am encouraged to be obdurate.
The parliamentary draftsman had a different view of the merits of "absenteeism" as opposed to "non-attendance". I am entirely persuaded by the Deputy's powerful argument and I accept the term "non-attendance" which will be inserted.
The Minister's sense of philosophical jurisprudence serves him well and may it serve him wherever he goes. "Non-attendance" prevails.
The term will be inserted on Report Stage. We will withdraw amendments Nos. 18, 21, 28, 30 and 191 and replace them on Report Stage with amendments including the term "non-attendance".
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 19 to 22, inclusive, not moved.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 9, subsection (1), between lines 33 and 34, to insert the following:
"(e) to monitor and report upon records of attendance by pupils,
(f) to develop, in co-operation with schools and the wider community, an early warning mechanism to identify pupils who may be at risk of failing to achieve the prescribed minimum education,".
This section sets out the functions of the board. It surprised me that absent from its explicit functions is to monitor and report on records of attendance of pupils. This is an area where the State has been found wanting in recent years and, effectively, the obligation to collect and report on attendance has become a dead letter. We have had patchy, one-off surveys conducted largely by community-based organisations in respect of particular schools and these have been very valuable, but we should state explicitly that one of the functions of the board is to monitor and report on records of attendance. More importantly, one of the functions of the board should be to develop an early warning system to identify students who may be at risk of failing to achieve what I termed "a prescribed minimum education" — I thought that was the currency in terms but that has now changed.
An early warning mechanism is important. It is all very well having a record that shows a child was absent for 30 days and then it transpires on a written report that it was due to 'flu or a funeral. What is far more important than the heavy bureaucratic obligation of reporting is to have an early warning mechanism where a school principal can signal that there are some children exhibiting signs at an early stage — perhaps on the day they arrive at school — that they may run into difficulties. There would be an expectation that the education welfare service, rather than waiting for chronic levels of 50% absence and threatening expulsion or suspension from schools, would intervene at the most timely point. Deputy Higgins and I were saying on the way here that when some children arrive at school at the age of five some patterns are already established that may lead to problems.
It is important that this service sees its function as an early warning one rather than being reactive; presenting the service with 6,000 children who are chronically absent, which is a problem that must be addressed, is very important. Even more important, however, is that they have this preventative element and provide a support mechanism for children who exhibit difficulties from day one. They should try to get in early, when investment may reap a long-term reward. That is the thinking between these two amendments and I hope one or both commends itself to the Minister.
The functions set out in the amendment are already laid out as specific duties of the education welfare officer in section 21. I have also provided for early warning systems in the legislation in section 21, specifically in the 15 day absence rule and the six day suspension rule. There is also a more general provision which allows principals to inform welfare officers about a pupil displaying irregular attendance patterns. Section 21 provides that "A record to which this section applies shall be maintained at the recognised school concerned and shall be in such form as may be specified by the Board". It also provides that where (a) a pupil is suspended from a recognised school for not less six days, (b) the aggregate number of school days on which a pupil is absent from a recognised school during a school year is not less than 15, (c) a pupil is, for whatever reason, removed from the register referred to in section 20 by the principal concerned or (d) a pupil is, in the opinion of the principal of the recognised school to which he or she is registered, not attending regularly, the principal of the school concerned shall forthwith so inform by notice in writing the educational welfare officer.
This is a misunderstanding——
No. The Deputy is referring to the principal making an educational assessment as to the likelihood of pupils who will last the pace. We have to be very careful that that is seen as a function of the school in terms of the educational performance of the child and that the child is engaged in meaningful education within the school. I see that as a function of the board of management of the school and that the school's plan should embrace all children. As a secondary principal talks to a primary school principal if a child going to secondary school is concerned, or if a primary school principal is dealing with a child of four coming to school, the principal may have reason to say that a child's background identifies him or her as a potential candidate for early school leaving. Whole school planning, psychological assessment and home-school liaison should all be brought into play.
The totality of the education welfare officer's job does not include educating the child in the school. It involves advising the school in terms of strategies that may prevent non-attendance patterns from developing. We must be very careful. It is a bit like the remedial teacher situation, where all too often children were taken out of the classroom to the remedial teacher and it was the remedial teacher's job to teach the child to read. However, the classroom strategy should be central to that child's performance and research shows this. We need flexibility, but we need to maintain the role of teachers within the school in terms of the participation of every child.
I understand what the Minister is saying. This is very mechanistic — in section 21(4) an accepted level of failure is fine, but there is a level of failure that is unacceptable. It is a bit like industrial quality control — 5 % is failing and is bad, while 4.9 % is tolerated. New quality thinking in industry holds that no level of failure is tolerable and the aim is to get increase quality throughout the system. To an extent the thinking of an acceptable level of failure runs through this section, where if a child is not suspended for more than six days it is fine. If the educational welfare service has advice and resources that might be of value to schools, there is a need to be more proactive than reactive.
The board has a responsibility in terms of conducting research into why children do not attend. We expect the board to be proactive in visiting schools. It would be somewhat ridiculous if it did not have early warning systems within its strategies to prevent non-attendance or the indicators that suggest the possibility of a child being in difficulty.
But section 21(4) will serve up children to the service who will not have difficulties — some may have the 'flu and be out for more than 15 days.
If that is verified there is no problem. We arrived at a figure of 15 days, but some people were worried about ten.
Section 21(4) is not an anticipating early warning provision. It is a very mechanistic approach. Does the Minister not see that there is room for principals to exercise judgment and say there are some problems emerging?
That is possible. There is nothing stopping the principal. This could be amended to refer to the principal being of the opinion of a likelihood——
Is likely to be a non-attender.
We will look at that on Report Stage.
I have sympathy with the amendment and the Minister in seeking to respond to this as there is a fundamental contradiction between three possible elements. For example, hypothetically, there are the rights of each child, irrespective of family or social background, to present himself or herself at the school. Let us suppose we are starting with a clean slate, that would have been contradicted, for example, by a situation in which someone made an assumption that several other members of the same family came from a particular identifiable background and one might be dealing with a set of given assumptions before the child has the opportunity to function as a pupil.
There is another possible scenario where one clearly knows that a set of people with responsibility for three or four children have produced a pattern of behaviour which leaves no doubt that what happened to child three will follow that which happened to child two. The third situation is where one tries to make an early assessment of a set of indicators which are building up to a 15 day threshold. A middle option may be that the behaviour of an individual child may make that child likely to fall at the 15 day non-attendance hurdle. Research on this issue is frequently flawed because much of it asked individual children how they feel. This research has not been able to handle the sets of assumptions which people carry as parents and teachers, so it is imprecise. We should consider ways to address this problem before Report Stage.
To a large extent legislation can only create a framework. Ultimately one is dependent on the professionals and those working on the ground to implement this in a sensitive and sensible way in the best interests of children. However, we will look at this on Report Stage.
I accept that we are seeking a balance but I approve of the concept of the early warning mechanism being considered by the Minister so long as it does not create the problems he has outlined.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 are related and may to be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 9, subsection (1)(f), line 36, after "assist" to insert "children and".
I accept this amendment which will ensure that the board will assist children as well as their parents on issues relating to school attendance.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 9, subsection (1)(f), line 37, after "at" to insert ", and behaviour in,".
This amendment broadens the scope of the Bill to allow the board to consider a broader range of issues relating to the educational welfare issues of children.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 26 is out of order.
The Minister indicated that he is considering introducing an amendment along these lines.
Yes, I have some sympathy with the Deputy on this issue.
Amendment No. 26 not moved.
I move amendment No. 27:
In page 9, subsection (1)(g), line 38, after "to" to insert "support,".
This amendment seeks to ensure that the board will monitor, assess and support the effectiveness of strategies. Will the national educational welfare board be a passive onlooker on the issues of strategies and programmes aimed at preventing non-attendance? Should its role not involve more than just monitoring and assessing so that it also supports schools. The board will be conducting research and developing best practice models, so it seems logical that it would offer technical support if not resources in the way in which a school can effectively execute strategies. Our education system is lacking technical support of this nature.
I will draw an analogy which is not exact, but an Irish company seeking to develop a product can go to Enterprise Ireland and obtain support with research and development, training, product development and so on. However, school principals seeking to develop school attendance strategies are more or less on their own. Even in-service training is weak and this is a golden opportunity to provide a dedicated technical support resource to schools seeking to implement strategies.
That is adequately provided for in the Bill. For example, one of the functions of the board is to produce guidelines to assist schools in developing statements of strategy and in the direct role of educational welfare officers in assisting schools with these statements and strategies. The idea is that the board will be a proactive force in the development of school attendance strategies and in supporting schools in so doing.
The Department has been producing guidelines on all sorts of issues for years but it is a different matter to put people into the field to provide technical support on how to do this.
This is provided for in the Bill. We are going to provide support.
Is the Minister saying that the educational welfare officer in the field is going to provide professional support in terms of methodology?
Yes, in terms of school attendance strategies. Let us suppose a school wishes to devise a plan to improve its attendance profile. That school could call in the educational welfare officer who will be trained and will have access to research conducted by the board. The officer would be able to suggest strategies which have been developed elsewhere and work with the school in developing its strategies. There is already some very effective collaboration between school attendance officers and schools in terms of certificates of attendance and so on. School attendance officers visit schools and work with teachers in developing a culture of attendance and the rewarding of such attendance. The board would be failing if it is not proactive in that sense.
The technical support role I have in mind would require the board not only to have an educational welfare officer in the field who could talk to the school but, should it be necessary, to have more professional staff who would come in and look at a specific aspect of the strategy. In other words, it would have various layers of strength. That is why it is preferable——
The board is designed to be a resource for schools. That is the way the legislation is designed.
Then why is "support" left out?
Paragraph (e) states that the board has to "assist recognised schools in so far as is practicable to meet their obligations. . . ".
I am referring to paragraph (g), "to monitor, and assess the effectiveness of strategies. . . ".
That is covered by paragraph (e).
The Minister is trying to minimise the wording. He is being asked to consider one word which would add clarification.
The word is of assistance.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 28 to 30, inclusive, not moved.
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 9, subsection (1)(h), line 44, to delete "truancy" and substitute "non-attendanace".
The Minister accepts the principle of amendment No. 31.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 32 and 123 are related and may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 10, subsection (1), lines 5 to 9, to delete paragraph (j) and substitute the following:
"(j) to advise the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment as respects those aspects of the school curriculum that, in the opinion of the Board, are likely to have an effect on attendance levels at, or the extent of student participation in, school, and".
The amendment proposes to remove the reference to truancy and provide a broader focus for the board to consider the extent of student participation in the school. It is proper that the board should consider the importance of student participation in school as well as their attendance.
Amendment No. 123 has a number of objectives. First, it will remove the term "truancy" from the existing draft to the Bill. This issue has already been debated by the committee and it is wholly appropriate that the change should be made. Second, the amendment clarifies the focus of this element of the school statement of strategy. While the original intent does not change, the wording provides a clearer reflection of our aim in this area. The statement is designed to assist students who experience difficulties in schools arising from the operation of the school or the provision of the curriculum, not the curriculum itself. This amendment clarifies that the school should consider removing these aspects where it is both possible and practical. Finally, the amendment gives the strategy a broader focus to allow schools to give consideration to encourage more regular school attendance on the part of students.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 33:
In page 10, subsection (1), between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"(l) to liaise with agencies or bodies which have responsibility for the welfare of children.".
When I drafted this amendment before Christmas, I was reading the Bill for the first time. I tabled the amendment to receive an explanation from the Minister. I do not see an explicit reference in the functions of the board whereby the board must liaise with bodies or agencies who have responsibility for the welfare of children. When children present themselves with non-attendance problems, it is frequently the case that they have come in direct contact with other agencies of the State long before the problem emerges. I thought it would be useful to include this as a specific function of the board. The Minister may say it is already included.
I accept the Deputy's point. The importance of ensuring adequate arrangements for interbody liaisons will be crucial to the success of the welfare board. The Bill emphasises the liaison obligations of the board. Explicit provision has already been made for such liaison in section 12 which identifies a specific range of bodies. This includes the health boards, which have the primary statutory responsibility for the welfare of children. In the event that any person or body is excluded, the section has an empowering provision to allow the Minister to extend the provision as and when appropriate. Accordingly, I am of the opinion that the Bill deals with this issue and I do not believe the amendment is necessary. There is an obligation on the board to liaise with a list of bodies and there is an empowering measure to enable any future Minister to extend the range of bodies to be consulted.
In listening to Deputy Hayes make the case for proper liaison between agencies and bodies, I recall serving on the MacBride Commission on Prisons many years ago. Some of the most valuable oral evidence given to us came from a retired chief attendance officer in the Dublin area. He made the point that if the statistics and information available to the then Department of Education had been made available to the Department of Justice, enormous numbers of people could have been eliminated from appearing in the juvenile crime statistics. In my capacity as a sociologist I later examined some of this for case studies. I found that what the retired chief attendance officer said was true. It is crucial that there should be proper co-operation, not just in terms of the liaison officer having access to other people, but in terms of the data sources and early intervention possibilities. This issue is for another day and another time, but the number of children who are needlessly coming into the criminal system is a cause of great concern. There should be a relationship between Departments and between the data gathered in different territories.
It is important that we deal with the difference between educational and psychological problems. A huge number of children would be assisted earlier if there was proper referral to psychological services. I am not satisfied this is happening. It seems problems must acquire a history before there is this type of necessary interchange. However, if the Minister assures Deputy Hayes and others that this measure is catered for in the Bill, I am happy to accept that.
I wish to raise another point which was referred to in the report of National News Federation. It makes an interesting point about the structural and institutional arrangements foreseen in the Bill. The report states that a unitary board at national level, employing education welfare officers deployed to unspecified areas, localities and numbers of schools might not ensure the delivery of an effective and efficient service. It goes on to state that to enhance the capacity of the board and the flexibility and responsiveness of the education welfare service as a whole, some form of intermediate tier might be provided for in the Bill. This amendment, which provides for liaison with agencies or bodies, is essentially about the extent to which there will be a local partnership rather than simply a centralised board operating at a considerable distance from the real players. This has always been a concern because in recent times, in the absence of legislation, quite effective local initiatives and partnerships have built up. It is not clear where they will fit in the network which will now be imposed by statute. There is a real risk that something very valuable will be lost by not having the intermediary tier. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the report which I have just seen.
The next couple of amendments are relevant to this one, given that other functions of the board will include dealing with emotional and physical development as currently proposed in the Bill. It has been pointed out to me that some of the expectations of the board straddle health as well as education issues. For that reason, we need to make decisions. Will it be so expansive as to involve what could be loosely referred to as health criteria and, if so, would it be reassuring for people to know there is further liaison with agencies? Otherwise, a considerable amount of expertise will be required on the board. This is not provided for in the current wording. I support the proposed amendment.
The Minister pointed out the liaison role in section 12. The Bill specifies the different agencies and Ministers responsible. I will quote an example from my area. A voluntary group was set up in one parish in my constituency which received money from the VEC to physically interview all the children. They were interviewed about the amount of time they spent in school, doing homework and whether they were involved in activities in the home and so on. This was not a VEC run agency; it did not fit in to the Commission of the Garda Síochána, the VEC or the National Youth Work Advisory Committee. These groups do a lot of work, but receive a small amount of funding from different agencies. How can we ensure the results are fed back to the board? One of the reasons I included "as a designated function of the board" was to ensure there would be as much liaison as possible with all these groups, which are mushrooming throughout the western suburbs of the city in particular, where there are currently no services. Where is it specified that as a function of the board it must liaise with all these bodies and agencies? I understand it is included in section 12, but it is not a specific function of the board in section 10.
In section 12 it states "the Board shall". We looked at this seriously because we recognise the liaison issue is crucial if we are to be effective on the ground. It is important at senior level within the board that there is a designated officer. It is also important to the health boards, the Department of Health and Children and the other Departments and national agencies concerned with children that a committee is established at central level.
Taking the partnership the Deputy mentioned, the educational welfare officer should fit into the group of partners which has already come together in a locality. The home-school liaison officer should work with the educational welfare officer, the social worker, the psychologist and the counsellor. We already have team conferences on children in difficulties. The educational welfare officer should be part of those local team conferences.
Section 29 provides for the exchange of data between different bodies in respect of children.
Does the Minister envisage a structure at local level across a cluster of schools in a community?
Once the service is established and the educational welfare officers are appointed, the existing partnerships in education should avail of the services of the officer and the educational welfare board. It is an additional resource for their activities. We met many partnerships about different educational issues and it is obvious that we should marry what has grown up on an ad hoc basis to the new initiatives and frameworks without getting rid of local initiatives
Section 12 deals mentions that "the policies of the Board, or those of a relevant authority". Much of the good work on the ground is not done by people who would regard themselves as authorities within the structure of the education process. Is it possible that everything they have done will be lost unless there is a mechanism on the ground to enable them to fit in with the work being done centrally?
No. Many of them already work with vocational education committees.
Some of them might question that.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I move amendment No. 34:
In page 10, subsection (4), line 19, after "concerned" to insert "or following a request from a parent".
This provides that the board may, with the consent of the parent, arrange for an assessment of a child. It would be sensible to provide that the parent can take the initiative in requesting an assessment of the board. That would give the parent the opportunity to anticipate a need and to draw on the services of the board to meet it. Parents often find themselves in the dark and do not know what problem a child is encountering. It can be too late when they find out the real issue. It could be useful where a child was exhibiting problems which might lead to non-attendance.
That is where the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is supposed to work with the school. I will look at that before Report Stage. It would be wrong to have an open-ended invitation but parents in difficulty should have the opportunity to request a psychological assessment from the board. We are looking at a situation, however, where no one has made an attempt to do that by the time the problem has reached the board. Perhaps then the educational welfare officer, the trigger for this, will ask for a psychological assessment.
Some parents are very reluctant to have their children psychologically assessed. Unfortunately, there is a poor attitude towards psychology in this country and people see it as a stigma. We agree that children who require psychological assessment should get it.
I know of cases where schools are refusing to take kids back in unless they undergo a psychological assessment. The parents must agree to that assessment before the child is taken back. It is causing some schools real difficulties with re-admittance because a child has created havoc. The board of management might want an assessment but the parents do not want to have the child assessed because they think there is nothing wrong with the child.
I see the merit of the amendment if it encourages parents to be more proactive. Those parents may not be the ones at whom the Bill is aimed, perhaps it is aimed at the reluctant parents, but it is better to give parents that option and to have some assessments carried out rather than wait for the board to request it. It is more intimidating then than if the parents decide the time has come for an assessment.
Ideally with the work of the National Educational Psychological Service and the schools operating in consultation with it, a psychological assessment should be carried out on children requiring it before reaching the welfare board. This provision deals with cases in which that has not happened. Once the psychological service is extended and schools are receiving advice from the service about how to monitor and assist children, the correct context in which psychological assessment should take place will have been established. There may, however, be reasons that context does not exist. This was a last resort, therefore, to give some power to the board to ensure the child is assessed.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
As it is approaching 6 p.m. and there are a lot of amendments to the next section, I propose that we adjourn the meeting.
If the Minister was willing to accept the word "assessment" instead of "examination" he would dispose of a batch of amendments in my name, amendments Nos. 35, 37, 39, 41, 42 and 80. On a previous occasion the Minister mentioned that he would be inclined toward that. The word "examination" is used throughout page 10 of the Bill. Use of the word "examination" is archaic.
We will start there tomorrow.
I will rehearse my etymological arguments overnight.
I propose that we adjourn the meeting and resume consideration of the Bill tomorrow from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.
The Select Committee adjourned at 6 p.m.